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glass cliff for women

The Glass Cliff for Women in Leadership Positions

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

The pathways for women's empowerment, professional success, and leadership advancement have not been smooth trajectories. In the 21st century, societal norms' gender stereotypes, and inequities still keep women from achieving and maintaining the highest leadership positions.

Numerous reports verify that women make up only a small part of top leadership positions in politics and business. American Association of University Women, the Women's Leadership Gap, and the Pew Research Center substantiate these views.

The dilemma is why women cannot maintain leadership positions. Are there some invisible barriers that refrain them from the higher ranks of power? Is this the proverbial "glass ceiling" or what?

In the words of Hillary Clinton, as she dropped out of the U.S. Presidential race in 2008:

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before..." (Hillary Clinton 2008).

Since then, numerous women have passed through the "glass ceiling" cracks and viewed their career trajectory's light and higher ranks. However, when they get to the top positions of their career, they face added challenges of sustaining those positions. Thus, they confront challenges of "glass cliff," and their chances of being unsuccessful in those positions rise substantially.

What is a Glass Cliff?

The glass cliff is based on the concept of the glass ceiling. Professors Ryan and Haslam (The Glass Cliff) from the University of Exeter, U.K., are credited for coining the term "glass cliff" in 2004. Their response to an article, Women on Board: Help or Hindrance (The Times). The article stated:

"The march of women into the country's boardrooms is not always triumphant...companies that decline to embrace political correctness by installing women on the board perform better than those that actively promote sexual equality at the very top."

Moreover, the authors concluded, "corporate Britain would be better off without women on board" as they negatively impact companies' performance.

To verify the findings, Ryan and Haslam examined the performance of 100 companies with men and women on their boards. Results confirmed, "...firms that brought women to their boards were likelier to have experienced a consistently bad performance in the preceding five months than those who brought on men." Researchers concluded that women's promotions under such challenging circumstances added invisible barriers known as "glass cliff" to their leadership careers and increased chances of failure. Ryan and Haslam described the "glass cliff" phenomenon as:

"...whereby women (and other minority groups) are more likely to occupy positions of leadership that are risky and precarious."

When researchers Cook and Glass looked into Fortune 500 companies, they also concluded: "White women and men and women of color are likelier than white men to be promoted to CEO of weakly performing firms."

Wikipedia also verifies that the glass cliff refers to:

"...the phenomenon of women in leadership roles, such as executives in the corporate world and female political election candidates, being likelier than men to achieve leadership roles during periods of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest."

The dilemma is why women do not perceive invisible risky barriers and what factors contribute to their failing from leadership ranks.

Reasons for falling off the Glass Cliff

To quote British Comedian Sandi Toksvig: "It's a case of men going, Wow, it can't get any worse, quick, let's put a woman in charge!"

Numerous factors have been specified to explain the glass cliff

These and multiple other such factors create situations when failure for women in leadership situations is high.

The pervasiveness of the Glass Cliff Phenomenon

Although the glass cliff phenomenon is popularly associated with business enterprises, it is equally widespread in public and private organizations, as documented by multiple research findings.

Numerous highly qualified contemporary CEOs have suffered this phenomenon. To mention, JCPenney's CEO Jill Soltau was out just after two years on the job (JC Penney). In addition, Marissa Mayer, as CEO of Yahoo (Forbes 2012), and Carly Fiorina, as CEO of Hewlett Packard (Women Leaders), are also known to be the victims of the glass cliff.

How to Prevent the Glass cliff

Can women prevent the glass cliff perceptions and prove that they are capable of leadership positions? The League of Women in Government provided helpful hints in their article titled, "By knowing that the glass cliff exists, we can not only avoid falling off it, but climb over it." These are:

  1. Don't be Afraid to Say No

  2. Women should be cautious in taking positions that seem too good but not aligned with their skills, knowledge, and expertise. According to Amanda Marcovitch, the article's writer, "saying no can be the ultimate form of self-respect." Women need to guard themselves against opportunities that may seem super, but may soon turn impossible to accomplish. Instead, women need to follow examples of famous female executives, such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who refused the offer to be Uber's CEO in 2017.

  3. Define Success Before You Take the Job

  4. Know what success means to you. Familiarize with the company's expectations and demands. Conduct thorough research of the company's vision, goals, and objectives before accepting a position. Take the job on your terms and negotiate to clear the confusion.

  5. Leave Your Ivory Tower

  6. Enhance linkages, collaborations, and a network of colleagues for constructive feedback and suggestions for improving the company and strengthening one's position in the company. Develop connections with the mentors, former administrators, and employees of the organization. Good working relationships with the senior and current junior employees are vital as they are responsible for implementing policies and procedures.

For women, the invisible barriers and falling from the mighty ranks of leadership are still a reality. They may pass through the glass ceiling cracks, but only to fall from the invisible cliff. But, like the glass ceiling, the glass cliff is an issue that can be solved when women become aware of its existence. Then, working with the support structure, policy formulators, and decision-makers, women can navigate the path to progress and sustain leadership positions.

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